Insomniacs do it in the middle of the night. Dog owners do it while trudging round the park. Some people do it in the gym, but lately I’ve taken to doing it alone in the car, on long journeys north through the dark when I need distraction from everything circling round my head.
Listening, that is; and perhaps more specifically, listening to things you might once have read instead. The growth of audiobooks, podcasts and even voice notes – those quick self-recorded clips that are steadily taking over from typed messages on WhatsApp and range, depending on the sender, from something like a brisk voicemail to a rambling internal monologue – reflects a steady generational shift away from eyes to ears as the way we take in the world, and perhaps also in how we understand it.
Reading instinctively feels like the higher art, perhaps because bedtime stories used to be strictly for children and oral storytelling is associated with more primitive cultures in the days before the printing press. But is that fair? If the effort involved in sitting down and decoding written words with your actual eyes were to gradually fade away in years to come – just as the old-fashioned tether of a landline phone gave way to the freedom of a mobile in your pocket, and cash yielded to the clinical efficiency of credit cards – what exactly would we have lost?
Reading is still very far from dead. Lockdown rekindled the love of curling up with a good novel, to publishers’ delight, with more than a third of people claiming to be reading more to fill their days. But the audiobook market, while still small, also notched up its seventh year of double-digit growth in the pandemic year of 2021. Podcasting is growing faster than any other media, with almost one in five Britons listening at least once a week now according to this summer’s Rajar survey.
When the world seems to be falling apart it’s comforting to let someone else tell you a story, even if it is a faintly apocalyptic one, given the dominance of news and politics at the top of the Apple podcast charts. Millennials in particular seem to be all ears; Katie Vanneck-Smith, the former Wall Street Journal president and cofounder of the “slow news” website Tortoise, admitted recently that when its members (who are mostly under 39) were asked what they wanted to read, the consensus was “actually, I listen, I don’t read”.
To some, that may sound irritatingly goldfish-brained. But that was me when I was on maternity leave, and couldn’t seem to find 10 uninterrupted minutes to sit down with the paper, so kept Radio 4 on half the day for some semblance of adult conversation. It was also my old next-door neighbour, a once voracious reader who was by then almost blind but could listen contentedly to old-fashioned audiobook tapes for hours, so long as someone occasionally helped her find the next cassette. It’s kids with their earbuds permanently jammed in, all the better not to hear their parents.
But it’s their parents too: all the overloaded, frantically multitasking midlifers trying to keep up with whatever zeitgeist they’re afraid of missing out on in an information-saturated world, while going for a run or cooking dinner. Having spent this year alternating between writing about politics and helping make the Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast, the issues are the same. It’s just that I know from experience the podcast audience is more likely to be simultaneously stacking the dishwasher.
Yet the idea prevails that listening is flighty or unserious, strictly for skivers who can’t be bothered putting in the hard yards. A sniffy 55% of respondents to one YouGov survey back in 2016 deemed audiobooks a “lesser” way of consuming literature, and only 10% thought listening to a book was wholly equal to reading it. The view that listening is cheating prevails even though nobody thinks it’s lazy for a student to sit through lectures, and going to the theatre isn’t considered intellectually inferior to reading the play at home.
One study by Beth Rogowsky, associate professor of education at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, asking students either to read a nonfiction book or listen to the audio version, found no significant differences in how much of it they absorbed. (Although when it comes to something complex or unfamiliar, the US psychologist and expert in reading comprehension Daniel Willingham suggests reading in print may be useful for going back to reread the difficult bits you didn’t quite get the first time, or stopping to think it all through.)
There’s an intimacy too to listening, a confessional air that suits soul-baring interviews and taboo-busting discussions about sex or menopause or parenting. And to hear a book read by its author is sometimes to understand, by the inflections of their voice, a meaning you wouldn’t otherwise have picked up. Voice notes suit the perennially anxious young in much the same way because they’re less intrusive than a phone call, and harder to misunderstand than texts; people can hear when you’re being ironic, lessening the risk of accidentally causing offence.
What troubles me most about listening, I suppose, is that it’s harder to share. You can recommend a podcast to a friend but you can’t leave it on the train seat for the next person when you get off, as I’ve done all my life with finished newspapers (well, who knows what may spark a lifelong Guardian habit?). You can’t give your goddaughter your dogeared, spine-cracked copy of an audiobook that meant everything to you when you were her age. You’ll never buy an old audiobook from a secondhand store and find somebody else’s faded notes scribbled in the margin, or a long forgotten postcard used as a bookmark that makes you want to know more about the life of the person who sent it. You can’t eye up a stranger across a train aisle, and take for or against them on the strength of the podcast you can’t actually tell they’re listening to. Paper doesn’t render itself useless in a power cut, and it leaves no electronic trace in times and societies where information of which the regime does not approve has to be passed on covertly underground.
All of which makes me think reading will never yield to listening completely; that like vinyl, handwritten love letters and cinema in the age of television, it will live on for pleasure or for romance but also because there are times when nothing else quite fits the bill. But if it turns out I’m wrong – well, you didn’t hear it from me.
• This article was amended on 29 December 2022 to correct the name of Bloomsburg University.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist